Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 3)
By Jene Bramel
July 25th, 2011

Here. We. Go.

After many painful months of waiting, NFL league business is back. And it's going to be nuts. The usual two month, three wave process that is free agency is about to be compressed into less than a week. Camps open later this week. And we'll have preseason games to dissect shortly after that.

Whereas we're usually left to sift through fluff pieces from OTA practices and offseason workouts to find the nuggets, 2011 will have us poring over frenzied transaction wires and early camp reports to make sure we haven't missed anything.

I'll have regular updates on free agent movement and early camp practice reports over the next few weeks, but it's time to re-acquaint ourselves with the free agent pool. With the CBA freeing all players with four years of league service, the 2011 pool is huge.

Who And What To Watch / Defensive Line

  • Charles Johnson (CAR) - The Panthers may end up kicking themselves for franchising Ryan Kalil over Charles Johnson, who gets kicked into the UFA pool under the new CBA. Re-signing Johnson is expected to be Carolina's top priority. But 25 year old two-way 4-3 defensive ends don't hit the market often. Johnson's IDP value will almost certainly be safe should he choose a new uniform. If he leaves Carolina, both Everette Brown and Greg Hardy will be in line for more snaps this year. One or both could breakout as an every-down starter.

  • Ray Edwards (MIN) - The Vikings almost certainly won't pay Edwards what he'll command on the open market. Reports have the Falcons, Eagles, Seahawks and others interested. All would be good landing spots. It remains to be seen how much of Edwards' pressure derived from opposing offenses keying on linemates Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, but his combined quarterback sack-hit-pressure counts have always been among the best in the league on a per-snap basis. The Vikings gave Brian Robison a nice contract extension and he'll be the heavy favorite to assume the snaps Edwards leaves behind. If Robison can make plays against the run, he'll have DL2 or better IDP upside. If not, it may be Everson Griffen that grows into a much bigger role, assuming he can stay out of trouble off the field and play up to his scouting report on the field.

  • Jason Babin (TEN) - Babin could be back in Tennessee, but the Titans have the depth to avoid having their hand forced in a bidding war. Regardless of where Babin lands, it's reasonable to expect some regression from his career highs in 2010. If the Eagles don't land Edwards, Babin could fit into their rotation. Whether or not Babin returns to Tennessee, Derrick Morgan deserves a long look during the preseason. Morgan had a sack and a half in just three games last year and was the best all-around 4-3 defensive end prospect in the 2010 draft. He'll likely be rotated in slowly, but could have a major IDP impact be midseason.

  • Mathias Kiwanuka (NYG) - The Giants have said that they want Kiwanuka back, but only offered an original round tender (back when those tenders were meaningful) and have more recently suggested that they'll only offer a one-year deal. If that remains their stance and Kiwanuka's neck issues are deemed minor by other teams' medical staffs, Kiwanuka will likely sign elsewhere. The Giants have the depth with Jason Pierre-Paul ready and able to assume an even bigger rotational role. Kiwanuka's value will be tied to his snap count and durability, but it's easy to forget that he averaged over 40 solos per 16 games between 2006 and 2009 and had 14 sacks in 26 games in 2007 and 2008 before playing linebacker in 2009.

  • Who And What To Watch / Linebacker

  • Paul Posluszny (BUF) - Posluszny's budding free agency hasn't been that big a story this offseason, as it's been assumed that the mutual interest between him and the Bills would keep him from changing teams. But while the linebacker class is deep with prospects and Posluszny isn't the second coming of Ray Lewis, it won't be surprising to see Posluszny attract attention on the open market. I think we'll see Posluszny return to Buffalo. If not, Andra Davis and Kelvin Sheppard may get chances at increased roles, but it won't be surprising to see another veteran free agent linebacker domino fall Buffalo's way.

  • Stephen Tulloch (TEN) - Though there have been votes of confidence for him in Tennessee and for DeAndre Levy as the MLB in Detroit, Tulloch has been consistently rumored to leave Tennessee for Detroit since the end of 2010. Should he sign with the Lions, Tulloch would very likely play an every-down role at MLB, with Levy projecting as the every-down WLB. It's also possible that Tulloch finds a home in an unexpected spot. If Tulloch leaves, the Titans will look at rookie Colin McCarthy in the middle, but may use Will Witherspoon or Gerald McRath inside while that transition is made. The Titans will again provide lots of tackle opportunity (though perhaps not as much as their lofty 2010 numbers), so the ripple effects of Tulloch's free agency will be key.

  • Barrett Ruud/Quincy Black (TB) - Most reports have Ruud moving on - possibly to the Giants - on the assumption that the Bucs won't be interested in paying Ruud what he believes he's worth on the open market. With versatile rookie Mason Foster in the fold, Tampa Bay can likely afford to let Ruud walk. Given the lack of coaching time and OTA reps, however, Foster may not step into an every-down role immediately. It's unlikely that Quincy Black (or Tyrone McKenzie) assumes the MLB role. Black's free agency will be very interesting. In other years, he'd have been a player signed after the first wave of free agents settled. Those waves may not be separated this year and Black is talented enough to generate some early interest. There were mid-July reports that the Chargers and Lions might want Black, and there are every-down roles for the taking with both teams. Black could be a surprise winner by this time next week.

  • Thomas Davis/James Anderson (CAR) -The Panthers have all kinds of decisions to make. They've got DeAngelo Williams, Charles Johnson and Richard Marshall to consider in addition to Davis and Anderson at linebacker. Davis was fully participating in players-only workouts and seems committed to returning. The team wants Anderson back, but it's unlikely they'll match a big contract if Anderson can find a team to pay him. For now, expect to see Jon Beason in the middle and Davis back at WLB as the two every-down backers.

  • Nick Barnett (GB) - With Desmond Bishop and AJ Hawk signing fresh contract extensions, it's likely that Barnett will be moved for cap relief. The Packers will try to move him first, but will cut him before the season starts (assuming no injuries early in camp) if not. He'll add to the already deep group of FA potentials.

  • Dhani Jones (CIN) - There's a good argument that the Bengals will again delay moving Rey Maualuga to MLB this year. He's taken very few snaps there in his professional career, the coaching staff has always been reluctant to put an undisciplined player (save Odell Thurman) in the middle and Jones seems unlikely to grab a lot of attention on the open market in this deep class. But most local reports believe that the team is planning to put Maualuga inside. Confirmation of that will come quickly. If the team wants Jones back in his former role, they'll sign him quickly.

  • Stephen Cooper/Kevin Burnett/Brandon Siler (SD) - This situation is the very definition of fluid. It seems certain that the team won't bring Stephen Cooper back. Reports suggest that the team may prefer Burnett over Siler if they choose to retain one of their own. For now, that translates to a projection of Kevin Burnett at WILB and Jonas Mouton at SILB, with Burnett the most likely every-down ILB and Donald Butler fighting for playing time. It's likely no better than 50-50 that Cooper or Siler sign with a team willing to give them an every-down role.

  • Clint Session (IND) - There's not been a lot of local buzz about Session, other than reports that the team may elect to bring back either him or Tyjuan Hagler, but not both. Session would likely find interest from a team looking for a rangy WLB if the Colts let him walk. If Session goes, expect to see Kavell Conner step in at WLB, with Pat Angerer biding his time at SLB.

  • Kirk Morrison/Justin Durant (JAX) - It's unlikely that Durant returns, but post-draft reports strongly suggested that Morrison was likely to be back as the Jaguars' MLB. Durant could land somewhere as an every-down WLB, and we'll know sooner than later. Daryl Smith is the only sure every-down player on the depth chart, though Russell Allen could jump up the chart quickly if Morrison and Durant leave and the Jags can't find a veteran replacement with coverage ability.

  • Rocky McIntosh (WAS) - This situation has been schizophrenic. McIntosh, grumpy at the lack of an extension last year, is now open to returning. The team may no longer be as interested in bringing him back as they once were. McIntosh wasn't a vital part of the Washington defense or a fantasy lineup, but the situation is important to track. At some point, the Redskins will have to replace ironman London Fletcher as their anchor at ILB. If McIntosh moves on, Perry Riley could get a chance at WILB. Should he play well, he'd be an early favorite to assume much of Fletcher's value.

  • Stewart Bradley (PHI) - It's a near lock that Jamar Chaney will take over permanently at MLB this year, with Bradley sliding out to SLB. But Bradley might generate some second-level buzz on the market. If he does, it'll be interesting to see how the Eagles handle the depth chart. Long term, it's likely that Casey Matthews would see full time duty (and possibly and every-down role) at WLB. That could happen even sooner if Bradley moves on.

  • Tyjuan Hagler (IND), Brandon Johnson (CIN), Will Herring (SEA) - In any other year, players like this wouldn't generate much discussion. This year, during the frenzy, they're likely to generate even less. But there's big impact to be found here if any of the three leave their current teams. As noted above, the Colts are likely to keep either Session or Hagler. If they both leave, however, there's a chance that Pat Angerer will assume the second nickel backer role that Hagler filled as a reserve last year. Should Johnson leave Cincinnati, a nickel spot opens for Keith Rivers or Rey Maualuga (or both if both Johnson and Dhani Jones leave). While Seattle didn't play lots of nickel last year, it was Herring who grabbed those 5-15 snaps a game over David Hawthorne. If the Seahawks pass on Herring, Hawthorne's consistency should improve.

  • Who And What To Watch / Defensive Back

    Defensive back will be the wildest position of any. The cornerback group is insanely deep. From Nnamdi Asomugha and Antonio Cromartie to Johnathan Joseph and Richard Marshall to Ike Taylor and Carlos Rogers and others, there are lots of potential depth chart busting signings to come. I'll have all of those recapped next week.

    The safety position will also be a game of musical chairs. With the (possible) exception of Roman Harper, no team seems to want its current free agent back. Donte Whitner, Michael Huff, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle, Quintin Mikell, DaShon Goldson and Dawan Landry could all be elsewhere by August 1. The fate of Jarrad Page and Lawyer Milloy will also affect the rankings at DB. When the music stops, George Wilson, Steve Gregory (or Marcus Gilchrist or Bob Sanders), Kam Chancellor, Mike Mitchell, Taylor Mays, Melvin Bullitt, Kurt Coleman (and later Jaiquawn Jarrett) and Shiloh Keo may have a seat in the top 30 overall defensive back list. And that's without considering upside opportunities in Dallas (under Rob Ryan), Jacksonville, St. Louis, Denver, Chicago and Tampa Bay.


    IDP Forum and Twitter

    Your best sources for information during the condensed free agency period and early camp practices will again be our IDP Forum on the FBG message board and Twitter (@JeneBramel). Follow the discussion in both places for news, reaction and quick analysis.

    As always, thanks for reading. Please send questions and comments to bramel@footballguys.com or post them in our new comments section below.

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